Germans break silence over immigration

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel Mr Erdogan's scarf seemed to portray two cultures happily intertwined

When Angela Merkel sat beside Recep Tayyip Erdogan as their two countries played each other at football on Friday, nothing could have seemed friendlier.

The Turkish prime minister's scarf even combined the colours of both teams, integrated nicely in the fabric. Like our two peoples in the fabric of society, it seemed to say.

And when Mesut Ozil, the star of the German side, scored against the land of his parents, he seemed almost embarrassed.

Born and bred in Germany to immigrants from Turkey, he was not going to gloat.

Start Quote

No immigrant group other than Muslims is so strongly connected with claims on the welfare state and crime”

End Quote Thilo Sarrazin German central bank official

He was not going to rub it in to the half of the 70,000 crowd who supported the country of his parents rather than his own.

"It was fantastic for me to score in this match", he said afterwards. "But I made the spontaneous decision not to overdo the celebrations."

Ghosts of past

It is characteristic of the tact with which Germans - for so he is - treat matters of "race", for want of a better word.

For very obvious reasons, it's not been an area where they want to go. The ghosts of the past have been too frightening.

Or so it was until recently. In the space of a few months, there have been outpourings of strong anti-immigrant feeling from mainstream politicians.

Suddenly, it is back on the agenda and back on the front pages, particularly of the mass-market Bild newspaper.

Thilo Sarrazin Thilo Sarrazin set off a storm with his opinions on immigrants

First, Thilo Sarrazin, who was a senior official at Germany's central bank at the time, said: "No immigrant group other than Muslims is so strongly connected with claims on the welfare state and crime."

He added in interviews that large numbers of Turks in Berlin "have no productive function other than in the fruit and vegetable trade" and that they were "conquering Germany" through a higher birth-rate.

Then, the leader of the ruling party in Bavaria waded in. Horst Seehofer, who leads the Christian Social Union, said about integration that it was "obvious that immigrants from different cultures like Turkey and Arab countries, all in all, find it harder".

Unemployment anger

So what's going on? Why the spate of very blunt anti-immigrant views?

Firstly, there does seem to be a new strident tone in Germany, perhaps leading to less reticence about the no-go-areas of the past.

There is, too, an anger in Germany about high unemployment in their terms, even as the economy grows faster than those of its rivals.

On top of that, there is austerity writ large, with much belt-tightening, and in an economy where the tax-payers have just bailed out Greece.

The popular Bild newspaper portrayed Greeks as idle and spend-thrift in contrast to hard-working Germans. It's a scenario ripe for a focus on the failings of outsiders (including perceived outsiders within your own boundaries).

And all this happens in a country where there is no populist party of the right, like there is Holland or Sweden - so anti-immigration sentiment comes out in the pronouncements of individuals within the main centre-right and centre-left parties (Mr Sarrazin is a Social Democrat).

Fears about Islam

Of course, the debate doesn't always fall neatly into two opposing camps.

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, for example, condemns the blunter anti-immigrant comments: "Germany will erode without skilled immigrants. Even the most optimistic predictions of 100,000 skilled immigrants per year and small numbers of people emigrating show that the net inflow won't be enough."

But it also argues that the people really are worried about "whether Germany will one day be part of Islam to a greater extent than it wants to be".

Muslims attend a mosque in Germany Germany's president says Muslims belong in Germany

In other words, the anti-immigration populists don't recognise economic realities; but those who simply condemn them as racists don't recognise the genuine fears in the bones of the German people.

Which is all very well in the subtle arguments of an up-market newspaper. In the blunter pages of populist newspapers, the image is one of a country being taken over by an alien culture.

Bild talks of the "insanity" of multiculturalism. It splashes pictures of an apartment block where the landlord insists that tenants conform to Sharia law by not letting to anyone who has anything to do with alcohol and pork.

The opinion polls indicate many Germans agree with Bild. One recent one showed 55% thinking that Muslims were a burden on the economy.

Chorus of dissent

Into this charged atmosphere, politicians seeking votes tread carefully. Angela Merkel has said the latest pronouncements from Mr Seehofer were misunderstood, so distancing herself from the toughest anti-immigration pronouncements from within her own ruling coalition.

But she also emphasises that Turks in Germany must speak German and do more to integrate, so speaking to many of her natural supporters.

But when the president of Germany (who is not elected by popular vote) said that Islam "belonged" in the country like Christianity and Judaism, a chorus of dissent opened up.

Turkish migration to Germany stems from 31 October, 1961, when a labour recruitment agreement was signed between the two countries. But it was an uneasy deal.

"Come and work but don't come to stay" was the gist of it - though that changed over time as more arrived. A "rotation clause" whereby workers could only stay for a certain time was ended in 1964, partly because German companies didn't want to constantly retrain new workers.

The 50th anniversary of the invitation looms. The debate will only intensify as it approaches

More on This Story

Related stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Europe stories


Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC


  • Antonia ReygadasAssignment Listen

    An intimate account of a family's long wait for the rescue of one of the Chilean miners navigation

BBC © MMX The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.